Show’s over. Guess I’ll get into life coaching now. But thanks to all who came and laughed and clapped. God, how I love the sound the clapping!
I were as happy everyday as I am this morning, I would probably be fucking immortall! Thanks to all who were there last night. Both in spirit and not. I had a blast!
I’m sorry. But I hate boutique hotels. I do. I hate the small minded stinginess: the lay-out of these miniscule, hyper decorated rooms that masquerade as trendy. So tiny, there’s only space enough to collapse and sleep. It’s nice. That the rooms are always so meticulously neat and tidy, the rolled up towels, the tight tucks of hospital corners, the cute little amenities displayed in metal and wicker baskets: condoms wrapped as candies, Frisbees, retro offerings of jellied Chuckles and chocolate Milky Ways. None of it has anything to do with service, of course. There is no service in boutique hotels. Even checking in and out has become like shopping at a local CVS.
No, I’ll take the ramshackle charms of The Splendid any day.
Oh my God, Mom. It’s like The Shining, “
These are the first words out of my daughter’s mouth as we stand in a lobby the size of a football field. Floor to ceiling gold encrusted mirrors, felt covered bezique tables, and the occasional tatty, group of Art Deco chairs and tables. The black and white marble floors, as cracked and wrinkled as the powdered skin of an old dowager’s face, seem to stretch on forever. And we are alone. It is blissfully empty. Totally Deserted. So, too, are the salons and dining room. I meander along another long corridor and stumble into a glass covered, sun lit inner courtyard with a magnificent, albeit dry, marble fountain .
“There are three sounds that make a Turk happy” says Selcuk, the sad eyed, elegant manager. “The sound of water, the sound of a woman, and the sound of money.” Selcuk has been here at the Splendid for 42 years. He works offseason and throughout the winter as a caretaker at a fantastically grand but rickety wooden mansion that once belonged to an Armenian shipping magnate.
The Splendid is in the town of Prinkipo on Buyukada in the Princes Islands—a 90 minute ferry ride from Istanbul. Built in 1906, at the height of the Art Nouveau movement, the hotel was a summer residence/resort for Istanbul’s wealthy upper classes . “Mostly Greeks, Jews, and Armenians,” says Selcuk. The annual exodus from the city was a family affair with the same suites reserved year after year for children, servants, and parents. Many travelled, even the short distance from city mansions and villas, with all the comforts of home, including their own silver tea services. One of them still sits in Selcuk’s office. A beautiful creamer, sugarer, tray, and pot, floridly monogramed with the initials D+D., two Armenian brothers and pashas.
Surrounded by all this luxuriously empty space, it’s easy to imagine the children, excitedly, climbing the sweep of wide marble stairs while nervous parents pull shut the squeaky metal grills of the only electric elevator in town. (2 persons only, reads the sign), As we extricate ourselves from its wood paneled cage, we step into more empty space and pull out our heavy gold keys. They stick in the tumblers and need teasing but when the doors open, I grin. The rooms are enormous, barely furnished with French windows, terraces, and spectacular views of blue skies and the sea of Marmara. Ecstasy, I say to my daughter. ‘
A nightmare, she replies. I’m not gonna sleep all night.
Centuries before the island became a posh resort, the piney hills that surround it were dotted with monasteries. Home to monks and exiled Byzantine emperors, princes and princesses who dreamed of politics and abandoned palaces while gazing out at the sea from the tiny grilled windows of their cells. Leon Trotsky was another famous exile. He lived in a fancy timbered palace that still stands with his four bodyguards and his wife from 1929-1933. He spent his days, fishing and writing. waiting for that invitation to return to Russia. An invitation that never came. “The world arrives here only after great delays, “ he wrote to a friend before moving on to what would become his final resting place in Mexico. City
There are no cars on the island. The horse driven fayton is the only mode of transport. I love that word and its allusion to the mythical boy who steered his father’s chariot too close to the sun and plunged through the skies to a fiery death. The faytons wait for passengers in a lot near the ferry. Like taxis at Kennedy airport. Taxis that snort and smell of dung. The hooves are shod in rubber from car tires to mute the sound of travel at night. This is another miracle on the island. There are no sounds at night. The 2,200 horses sleep in a vast complex of barns and stables at the other end of the island. There is no meowing from the hundreds of cats, no caw of seagulls, no bass or thrum of disco, no baying dogs. It isn’t until the first rays of dawn when the mournful horns of the first ferries arrive that our silence is disturbed.
There is a wonderful Turkish word that describes the charms of The Splendid. Buzun, they say. Broken glamour. Other hotels also had it: the old Peras Palace in Beyoglu, the London Connaught, The Grand in Rome. All gone now, unrecognizable. There will come a time soon, too soon, when the Splendid, this grande dame built during the twilight of the Ottoman empire, will succumb to the inevitable; when some property developer will either raze her to the ground or renovate and create a modern ruin. Rooms will be split up and subdivided and the glory of all this wasted space, space once filled with the gossip and chatter of those who have already disappeared (the Jews, Armenians, and Greeks) will be nothing but a distant, very distant, memory.
Wanna walk with me, Jay says.
I just stand there, f’ing frozen.
C’mon, he grins.
Do I want to walk with Jay Z?? Me and Jay Z? Jay Z and me? Are you kidding? I drop everything: wallet, pen, paper. Everything. And I’m over the rope. And it’s the two of us, strolling around this HUGE white space and he’s rapping Picasso Baby in my ear—oh what a feelin. I just wanna fuckin billion— and there are like 8 gigantic cameras, ahead of us and behind us, and in his face. And I’M DYING. Why, oh why, don’t I own a freakin’ cellphone?
It’s a performance piece—a video for the new album, Magna Carta. Fifty people at a time, mostly artists, at the Pace Gallery in Chelsea. Jay doing Marina Abramovic but not. At the MOMA, Marina didn’t move. She sat there as still as stone for hours, for days, while people sat across from her, staring, fidgeting, crying. I’m the first group in. So it’s a first for Jay, too. He’s never done it before. And it’s awkward. At least, in the beginning. “Like being in a 6th grade talent show,” says this scruffy, deeply hip painter, after his 3 minutes on the bench. “You’re in this creative force field. You don’t know what to do. I just felt soooo white!”
I know exactly what he meant. I was as stiff as a zombie during our stroll. Terrified I’d ‘bust a move.’ HAH! Me? Bust a move. I don’t think so. This was the weird thing about the event. All these deep hipster white people without a clue. But Jay took it all in that long, easy stride. He touched, he smiled, he posed. “See I’m posin’ now,” he said to two giggling women. “Did ya catch that? Did ya Tweet that? Here, I’ll do for ya it again.”
Then, he invited us all in and over the rope. And we’re this wall around him. No security. None of his people. We give him room. He raps. He breathes. He laughs. We’re polite. But the boundaries are blurred. It’s strange, how it somehow released the tension. His tension. I imagine that it must have been disconcerting—the sudden switch. Always protected; shielded by his ‘people’ from the public. Forget the fact it was a stunt (and that Marina Abramovic should NEVER have stood up and tried to dance.) Forget the fact people say he’s sold out to the system and there’s no such thing as a happy rapper.
I was fascinated by the proximity—by being close enough to sense/to feel his nerves/discomfort. On stage, the man is always in such total command/control. I’ve seen him silence 15,000 screaming fans for minutes at a time, just by quietly asking. And he seems so huge—colossal. The close ups of his face on those giant arena screens, the pyrotechnics, the amplification of sound. They’re all a reminder of the distance that both makes (and unmakes) a star. Yesterday, when he walked out alone into that vast, open space—no entourage, no spotlight, no special effects— when he rubbed his hands together and searched for eye contact, I was stunned. It was if he had suddenly shrunk. And I wondered how in hell you handle being human when it’s distance not proximity that makes you a star.
Sure, it was P.R., a spectacle, self serving. But it’s like the joke another artist, a dancer, next to me told her friend.
How many performance artists does it take to screw in a light bulb?
I don’t know, says the friend.
Who the fuck cares.
OMG!! I have NOTHING to wear. Soooo excited. Come back tomorrow for details.
Do you think they love their wives, Mom?
I answer instantly, impulsively.
OF COURSE, they do, N. Of course, they love their wives.
We’ve been watching a woman in a black linen burka eat her dinner.
Her husband and kids, dressed in designer jeans and button down shirts, happily chat and wolf down their meze appetizers and lamb entrees. The woman furtively lifts her veil out with one gloved hand like the flap of a pup tent while the other hand, also gloved, forks the food into her unseen mouth. The surrepticiousness, the speed, with which she does this makes the act of eating seem almost illicit, dirty.
It’s so humiliating, says N.
For us, yes, I reply. But it’s complicated.
Later, I will ask myself… How much more complicated is it than so many women at home who “choose” to remain in abusive relationships; modern, enlightened women who may not always endure the agony of physical abuse but for whom humiliation is a fact of life. They love their men. Or think they do: these smart, vivid women who tip toe through their daily lives, constantly belittled, diminished by fear and the cruelty of verbal assaults. Why do they tolerate it? What makes them different from the women here?
Earlier in the afternoon, I had spoken, briefly, with another middle-aged woman. We were visiting Suleiman’s mosque.
Where are you from, she says, adjusting her silk head scarf.
New York, I reply with a smile
Oh, she says, touching my elbow. Such a great city. I am from Saudi Arabia.
Really, I say, nonplussed.
Yes, From Rihadh.
I’ve never been there, I say.
Isn’t this beautiful, she adds, eyes gazing up at Sinan’s soaring dome.
It’s magnificent, I reply, alluding to the nick name of the sultan who built it.
What I’m really thinking the minute I hear the words Saudi Arabia from a woman, a woman who is obviously from a somewhat liberal- minded family (she is wearing a headscarf not a full burka) has nothing to do with sultans or the splendor of the 15th century structure that surrounds us. What I’m thinking is: has your husband ever attended a public execution in Riyadh? (Criminals are still beheaded with a silver sword.) What do you think of men stoning girls and women to death? What does it feel like to be alone, to be unaccompanied, even for a moment? Is it a luxury? And why are woman like you forbidden to enter a mosque and pray on Fridays, the holiest day of the week?
I should add that my reflex response to this woman and the news that she comes from Saudi is similar to my knee jerk response when I first listen, closely, to the call to prayer. Alluh Akbar! Alluh Akbar! All I can think of is Homeland and the scenes when Damien Lewis, aka Nick Brody, Marine and suspected terrorist, sneaks out of the house to pray in his garage.
As this woman retreats behind the latticed grill and sinks to her knees, I wonder how this perversion, this unholy and distorted view of women, could possibly have a place in a building as glorious as this. I have been in churches and cathedrals all over the world, from Jerusalem to Chartres. None of them speak to me as articulately or as intimately about the power or rather, the possibility of a god as these mosques. I’m not talking about the grand, showy masterpieces that define the city’s ancient skyline. Not the Blue Mosque, or Suleiman’s, or even the New (400 year old) Mosque near the Galata Bridge. It’s the tiny jewels like Rustem Pasha and the slightly more remote, Sokullo Mehmet Pasha Mosque in Kadirgalima, that confound and move me. It’s that seduction, the illusion of space, created on a smaller, more personal scale. This is what invites me to think irrationally about the divine.
Take the Sokollu Mehmet Pasha Mosque, for example. One of the greatest grand viziers of 16th Constantinople, he was the son of a Bosnian priest. Recruited as a young Christian to serve the Sultan as a Janissary, he converted to Islam and quickly rose through the ranks: admiral, soldier, confidante of not just Suleiman but of the two sultans who followed him. He commissioned this particular mosque in 1571 as a gift for his wife, Esma Han Sultan, the daughter of Selim 11.
Designed by Sinan, the great Ottoman starchitect, it’s hidden from the street, like a secret or some private thought. You descend the steep, wooded slope of a hill, overlooking the Marmara sea, and carefully walk down the mossy, uneven steps of a marble staircase. Then through a damp, stone tunnel, there is the sudden, miraculous surprise of a wide open marble courtyard. The Ablutions Fountain, folly- like with it stripey pink and white marble and whimsical conical top, still has its original brass taps.
Only gently restored in the 1930’s, the complex feels utterly abandoned. Which, for me, is part of its charm. The marble isn’t shiny or polished. The grey leaded domes of the medrese are dull with age. Tufts of grass poke through the roof in spots. Dervishes taught here long ago. They danced in a tekke beneath my feet. The tiny cells of the medrese that encircle the courtyard each had room for a single bed, a fireplace, a rug, and a shelf of books. The hamman or baths, the kitchens, the caravansary or stores that contributed to the upkeep of the mosque, haven’t functioned in hundreds of years. But oh my, the mosque itself…
First, you remove your shoes (which is practical not spiritual. Shoes would be unsanitary, unhealthy, in a space where the worship of Allah demands prostration and the repeated touching of the forehead to the ground.) Stooping beneath the heavy leather curtained doorway, a gesture of humility, you enter. The shock of snow-white plastered walls, the brilliantly cool blue Iznik tiles and swirling gold calligraphy, the sheer height of the kaleidoscopically painted dome, and the light. So much natural light…. All of it must transform the required acts of submission and prayer, the physical prostrations, into an almost unearthly pleasure.
Although the mosque does have its share of relics, chunks of the black meteorite from the Kaaba stone in Mecca are embedded in the lintels and mihrab, there are no heavy wooden pews, no altars, crucifixes or statues of saints. Not even the distracting sound of footsteps. There is nothing but stillness, silence., (Tho I am totally depressed to note that , thanks to religious authorities, the layers and layers of old rugs, some exquisite and priceless, others tatty but all donations, gifts, from the faithful, have vanished. They’ve been replaced in every mosque by the same, monotonously garish, wall- to- wall carpeting—carpeting that might just as easily cushion the footsteps of some Turkish oligarch in a McMansion on the Bosphorus.)
“He constructed a lofty medrese and house of knowledge at the courtyard of the joy-giving Friday mosque and soul expanding place of wonder which he built with artful wonders and heart alluring decorations….” This are the words of the dedication from the Grand Vizier in his foundation deed.
Where in this language, not to mention architecture, devoted to knowledge, joy, and wonder: even to heart alluring decoration, is there room for the abysmal treatment of the women who also came to worship here? One of whom was the beloved wife of the Grand Vizier himself. It’s a mystery to me: such exaltation, beauty and ugliness, this combination of the pure and the corrupt, of piety and pitilessness, arrogance and humility.
But I love that the mosque is untouched; that it remains overlooked and forgotten. For the past ninety years, since Ataturk created his vision of a secular, modern Turkey and abolished the caliphate, officially closed the medreses and took over the nation’s mosques, only the tourist attractions and heritage sites in Sultanahmet have been maintained with government money. This, of course, is now changing. Dramatically, as our ferociously smart and skeptical friend, Murat, points out. “The Arabs are bringing in money. Lots of money. They’re investing in our businesses. They’re renovating and opening new mosques, spreading the holy word. It makes us nervous.”
When the Arabs first arrived in Constantinople, they came as merchants. (This, after repeated attempts to conquer it during Byzantine times had failed, miserably.) They introduced the Ottoman empire to coffee which one disgruntled pasha described as “the black enemy of sleep and copulation.” Money, it seems to me, is a much blacker, more sinister enemy. I see it in the pristine, Disney-like renovation of the square in Sultanahmet. The imperial hammam of Aya Sophia looks like a spa in Los Vegas. Ditto for the gigantic fountain near the Hippodrome. Just add music and a light show and you could be at the Bellagio.
I remember when I wandered through here in the 80s. The place was deserted but so alive—It was alive not with touts pushing tours of the Bosphorus or busloads of weary tourists but with whispers of conspiracy and gossip among jealous eunuchs and ambitious viziers. Though many of the cobblestones were missing and the area was poorly lit, there was room in the shadows to imagine everything from the stealthy footsteps of the Sultan’s assassins, the deaf mutes who strangled their victims with a silken bowstring to stories of caiques crossing the Golden Horn from Topkai, dragging schools of bejeweled fish behind them (they were attached to the caique with silver chains.) Constantine, Justinian and his low born wife, Empress Theodora, Mehmet the Conqueror, Suleiyman the Magnificent and Roxelana, the most powerful woman in Ottoman history… All of them ruled, worshipped, lived, loved, murdered, even went mad, here or not far from this square. In fact, the man who built my favorite mosque, Sokollu Mehmet Pasha, issued an edict here in 1557. It guaranteed the rights and religious freedom of all inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire.